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Tuesday, 8 February, 2000, 15:27 GMT
Is Haider a threat?

BBC Correspondent Angus Roxburgh has been closely following the story of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party's rise to power and took time out of his schedule to answer some of your questions.

Milos Mladenovic, United States: Is it true that the prevailing atmosphere in Austria has been for years one of nostalgia for "good old times" of Nazi regime and stubborn belief that they have been wronged in WWII?

Angus Roxburgh: The vast majority of Austrians resolutely condemn the Hitler period. But there is a difference between Germany, where the post-war years have seen much soul-searching in order to come to terms with the Nazi past (including the question of whether there is "collective guilt") and Austria which has tended to see itself as a victim of Nazism (indeed, the first victim, following the Anschluss of 1938).

Pieter van der Wielen, Holland: The extreme right in other European countries often wins votes because of the fear for European integration. Is this also one of the reasons for Haider's popularity?

Angus Roxburgh: Yes, Haider played on fears of the loss of sovereignty that arises from further integration, but also on fears that the enlargement of the EU would bring floods of workers from poorer East European countries, attracted by Austria's higher wages.

Monica, Italy: I can't understand why the EU and US treat Austrians and their new government as a bunch of neo-nazi criminals. The FPO has said questionable things, but haven't committed any human rights violation nor incited people to do so.
What kind of international rights laws and principles are they applying, so blindfolded and unidirectional as they are in their condemnations?

Angus Roxburgh: The EU is undoubtedly on thin ice legally in imposing sanctions merely on the fear of future violations rather than because of anything in the new government's programme or actions.
The EU treaties envisage suspension of a member only if it consistently violates democracy or human rights, not if there is merely a suspicion that it might in the future.
The European Commission has been more careful, saying it will monitor Vienna's actions closely but take no measures unless the EU treaties are violated. Because the EU as a whole has no grounds for action Austria's 14 partners have imposed "bilateral" sanctions, i.e. they are freezing political relations between Vienna and each individual state.

Ms Tarja Kovanen, Finland: How is all of this affecting the European Union and its day-to-day operations? Is the EU capable of functioning and making decisions while Austria is put "on hold"?

Angus Roxburgh: In the long term it is untenable. Yet the rushed Declaration issued by the Portuguese presidency on behalf of 14 countries includes no "let-out" clause, no indication of what Austria can do to bring the sanctions to an end (other than throw the Freedom Party out of the coalition, which certainly won't happen).
A test case will come on Friday when EU social affairs ministers are to gather in Lisbon for an "informal" summit, at which issues are supposed to be discussed in a relaxed atmosphere. What will they do? Will the Austrian minister, Elisabeth Sickl (of Haider's Freedom Party) be left to sip tea on her own?

Wulf-Dieter Krüger, Thailand: Some Jews that I know agree with me that this overreaction does not bring about a change but fosters neo-nazism. Do you think that there is a danger of neo-nazism just because there is this overreaction, by Israel, America and the EU?

Angus Roxburgh: I don't think there is a great danger of neo-Nazism generally in Austria. The real neo-Nazi groups are very, very small. The vast majority of people who voted for the Freedom Party did so because of its social policies, certainly not because they sympathised with Haider's remarks about the Third Reich. But it is true that the isolation of Austria could push more people towards Haider's party.

Chica, Japan: I'm a Japanese university student, interested in studying at a university in Austria. Would it be possible for you to tell me if I could live there safely as an international student, and if there is any harassment towards foreigners living in Austria?

Angus Roxburgh: I think you will have a marvellous time studying in Austria, and are most unlikely to encounter any harassment because of your race. There is considerable resentment towards immigrants in Austria, but it is directed towards those, mainly from Eastern Europe, who [are perceived to] pose a threat to Austrians' jobs.

Jim Dempster, UK: What is it that the EU and its citizens fear most about all this? Is the fear based on the spectres of past associations, or could it be that we are waking up to the possibilities of a political shift that is potentially far bigger, and more frightening, across Europe as a whole?
Have you met Haider? What are your impressions of him and his followers?

Angus Roxburgh: Certainly, the reactions to Haider are based largely on his past reputation and remarks rather than on his policies. But it is also true that several other countries - France and Belgium, for example - have strong extreme right movements, which helps to explain why those countries have reacted most heatedly. Remember, though, that as far as elections around Europe are concerned, recent years have brought in more centre-left governments, not right-wing ones.
I have met Haider. At our meeting he disavowed and apologised for his remarks about the Third Reich, and made every effort to appear reasonable and personable. The trouble is, he makes a habit of saying things for which he later has to apologise, most recently about President Chirac of France and about Belgium.
One of his opponents said last week that "we don't need a politician who has to keep apologising". He struck me as something of a bar-room politician, with simplistic, populist views and a loose tongue.

Brad King, USA: Does the average Austrian now feel that the EC and US are undemocratically imposing their own, arbitrary political orthodoxy on Austria? Do they feel angry that this is hypocritical, given their lax attitude to much more repressive, but more powerful nations, such as China?

Angus Roxburgh: Absolutely. My impression is that the majority of Austrians are furious at the interference. They believe they have the right to choose their own government and that it is an insult to be treated - as one newspaper put it - like "Teheran" or "Milosevic".

Sam, England: Exactly how sceptical should the world and especially the immigrants in Austria be about Haider?

Angus Roxburgh: Given his past remarks and ability to change, or camouflage, his views, I think it is wise to treat him with scepticism. Even the Austrian president, Thomas Klestil, makes no bones about the fact that he considers Haider personally unfit for office.
As for immigrants, Haider says he wants those already in the country to be integrated before many more are allowed in. This differs little from the previous government, which had already reduced immigration to a trickle.

John Scanlon, Canada: It is interesting that three of the portfolios that the Freedom party has are Defence, Finance and Justice. What powers do these portfolios give the Freedom party to consolidate their power? Does the ministry of Justice include power over the police and the intelligence services?

Angus Roxburgh: Police matters are in the hands of the Interior Ministry, which has a People's Party minister. Finance gives the 31-year-old Freedom Party minister, Karl-Heinz Grasser, a chance to reduce the budget deficit he inherits from the social democrats.
The new government promises to raise taxes and cut spending - not in itself unwelcome to the EU. At defence, Haider's minister will be able to pursue the Party's long-term aim of ending Austria's neutrality and bringing it into Nato (again, not, one would imagine, unpopular with Western governments).

Ben Archer, UK: How have Austrian Jews reacted to the introduction of the Freedom party into the government?

Angus Roxburgh: With great apprehension, despite the fact that Haider is not on record as having ever made anti-Semitic remarks. Interestingly, the renowned Nazi-hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, was quoted as saying he did not believe Haider was a neo-Nazi, but merely a right-wing populist, and not dangerous.
Another Jewish leader I spoke to last week said it was the atmosphere of intolerance and xenophobia surrounding Haider that worries him, as well as his ability to whip up the feelings of a crowd. All that reminded him of the rise of the Nazis, but, he stressed, there was nothing anti-Jewish in the People's Party's policies.

Peter Zelnik, UK: My parents were Jewish refugees from Vienna in 1939 My father spent 4 months in Dachau, my mother worked with the Vienna Israelitische Kultursgemeinde to secure the release of Jews in concentration camps and their relocation in countries of refuge and my grandmother was gassed at Treblinka.
I doubt that all FPO members of the Austrian cabinet and were genuine when they signed the manifesto on taking office. What steps can be taken to ensure that the new government adheres to the letter and spirit of this apparent commitment?

Angus Roxburgh: President Klestil and Chancellor Schuessel say they are the guarantee of democracy in Austria. The president rejected two Freedom Party members who were proposed as ministers, one who had threatened the president with "a bloody nose", the other who had run a racist election campaign in Vienna. The six party members who are in the government have been vetted and pronounced "clean" - but will be watched closely both by human rights groups and by foreign governments.

Bart Andrew Colen, USA: Having lived in Vienna myself, I know that there is a strong feeling that things within Austria are at a stand-still politically and economically. How much of Haider's support do you feel is a more a result of frustration and protest than genuine support for whatever his policies might be? In short, how many people do you believe feel - as some of my Austrian friends do - that ANY change is change for the better? And to what extent could this actually be a valid argument?

Angus Roxburgh: Yes, at least part of Haider's support is a protest against 30 years of centre-left government. One thing in particular was a cause of great frustration - the so-called Proporz system, under which all state sector jobs, including doctors and teachers, were carved up between the two mainstream political parties.
Promotion was impossible without a party card or at least the say-so of one of the parties. People were sick of this, and getting rid of it was one of Haider's major pledges, which has now become part of the coalition's programme.

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